Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Why Did Bodhi-Dharma Leave For The East, a South Korean film, produced and directed by Bae Yong-Kyun

This film was shown at Siri Fort Auditorium on July 18 as part of the 8th Asian Film Festival. Made in 1989 by Bae Yong-Kyun, a university professor and first shown in Locarno Film Festival, it is deemed a great film. Bae Yong-Kyun did not use professionals, either on the technical or on the acting side. He took seven years to make this film. These things have added to the charm and mystery to it.

But many people are also bowled over by it because they could not understand what it is about. There is no mystery on this count. Bae Yong-Kyun is grappling with the question as to why the tradition of Zen, the intellectual variant of Buddhism, did not thrive in Korea, but went east to Japan. The title of the film says it all.

The beauty of the film lies in the fact that Bae Yong-Kyun has found great visual metaphors to convey his argument. He shows a senior Zen master living in a temple atop a mountain, and he is served by two disciples, one a young man, and ther a child. The master tries to instil the abstract and diffuclt concepts of Zen thought through its difficult form of "koan" or a riddled question. But the young monk has his doubts. He is not sure whether he was right in abandoning his family and the world in the quest for enlightenment.

Bae Yong-Kyun shows the Zen master's teachings through breathtaking beauty of nature -- the mountains, the streams, the flowers and the winds. But the two disciples have their own naturescapes. The young boy discovers the brusque and violent aspects of life. The young monk dreams of torrents of streams in his mind as he tries to hold on to the koan given by his master. Then he goes to the city and looks at its tumult.

The Zen master dies, and the young monk leaves the temple on the mountain. And he promises the little boy that a replacement would be sent from the temple at the foot of the mountain. The boy lingers, waiting for the future. There is also the cow, which breaks free from the barn in the temple and roams the wooded hillsides. And it is seen shedding a tear as the funeral pyre rages of the Zen master.

Bae Yong-Kyun does the impossible. He has succeeded in presenting a reflective historical observation through the life and death of the Zen master. The narrative has minimal details, but they convey a lot. And throughout, we are watching the argument through brilliant visualisation.

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